Friday, January 22, 2010

Newbie Question #6

6. How do you, when writing dialogue, make sure that each character sounds like a unique person?

Start with distinct, unique characters.

One thing I'm probably going to end up saying over and over during the course of this series is that conflict = drama. My suspicion is that if you're getting the critique that your characters all sound the same it's because they're difficult to tell apart for other reasons as well. They all come from the same socio-economic class. They're all the same ethnicity/race/(or in the case of science fiction/urban fantasy) species. They have the same agenda/goals. In other words, they have too much in common.

Romances are rarely exciting (to me, at least,) if a lady is marrying a lord she's perfectly suitable for. Better, IMHO, that she's totally smitten by the gardener/slave-gladiator/space pirate/rogue, etc. who is not only so WRONG for her (on the surface, of course), but completely outside of her expected socio-economic pairing.

If you've got a high class princess and a slave-gladiator in the same room talking to each other and they sound the same, then, I'm sorry to say: you're just not thinking.

The slave-gladiator isn't going to use fifteen dollar words, because he likely wasn't educated (if he was, your princess ought to be shocked and there better be a fascinating reason for it). Even if he was once a great lord/general/etc., his life now will probably be rougher and his language ought to show it. More swear words (or their equivalent). Less philosophical debate, more show me the money, as it were.

And, honestly, that's one of the easiest "tricks" (if you really need one). Make your heroine a space commander who uses crisp, militaristic sparse sentences. "Come. Now."

Meanwhile, your hero is a total fop of a space pirate that he uses twenty, lovely poetic words when he could use two. "Darling, only if you press those pert lips against my lily white a$$."

If you really KNOW your characters and their background this won't be difficult. Even if by some accident of plot you have two people (or more) together who are all from the exact same place and time, as long as they all have different agendas they will "sound" different because the reader will know who is who by who wants what.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Newbie Question #5

5. What do you consider the most important principle of fiction?

This is a good one, and I'd love to start a discussion about it because I'm not sure I have a ready answer.

My first impulse is to quote Stunk & White: Be Bold. Be Clear.

But I'm not sure that's a "principle," per se. I know that when I was first starting out, I spent a lot of time arguing with other genre writers about the importance of clarity. Some people thought that it was more important to be clever. They thought my preference for understandability meant that I wanted to appeal to the least common denominator, sell my soul for commercial success, and otherwise abandon the craft.

For me, the issue was that I wanted to tell a story that would be heard/read.

Ironically, the people with whom I had this argument are also commerically published now, so I guess that in the end clever and clarity aren't nearly as mutually exclusive as I first thought.

But I don't think that's really what's being asked here. I think you want to know what aspect of the craft you should concentrate on the most: plot, character, or what have you.

My answer is still the same. In the interest of being bold and clear, focus on story telling in general. Maybe for you that means you need to strengthen your characters. For me, it meant learning everything about plot... (because that's my weakest area.)

What do the rest of you think?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Newbie Question #4

4. How do you get ideas for stories?

A lot writers have weighed in on this question, but I love Neil Gaiman's response, and I respectfully suggest you read what he has to say.

The joke answer "from an idea factory in Schenectady [New York]" has been attributed to a number of science fiction writers from Ray Bradbury to Harlan Ellison.

My own answer builds on what Gaiman says in his essay, which is, essentially, ask questions and let those questions lead you to more questions. My addition is: cultivate a sense of wonder.

I will admit that I'm not one of those writers that complain of having not enough time for all the ideas brimming over in their mind. I often actually have to sit down and coax ideas out of my head. (Characters... now THOSE I often have to spare -- all waiting impatiently in my head for their story to come to me.) When I'm starting a proposal, I'll pull out pen and paper and start scribbling out thoughts. If I have a character in mind, I might just start by asking myself the simple question: "What's the worst thing that could happen to this person?" and start there. Because in order to answer that question I have to know what's important to the character, the "what's at stake?" question which leads nicely to conflict which is the heart of drama.

But when I'm not on a deadline for a story idea, I cultivate a sense of wonder by reading everything I can get my hands on. I read fiction. I read non-fiction on any subject that attracts me (I have a whole book, for instance, on the history of grave robbing that, believe it or not, has worked into my vampire stories.) As a former science fiction writer, I also read popular science -- well, literally, as I'm a long time subscriber to the magazine Popular Science.

I also think that story generation is easier if you're the kind of person who looks at the world and automatically thinks: "Huh, I wonder why things are this way?" or "Why is that person who s/he is?"

So the short answer is... be open, ask questions... and wait. My friend and mentor Maureen McHugh once said that ideas are like pearls. They start as a grit of something that gets into your mind and slowly other thing attach themselves to that initial bit, becoming nacre. Sometimes you just end up with a dirty oyster, but sometimes you get pearls.